Biden administration claims credit for unprecedented expansion of hunter access to National Wildlife Refuges initiated under Trump
WASHINGTON D.C.––Why would the Joe Biden administration want to claim credit for one of the most odious actions of the Donald Trump administration pertaining to animals and habitat?
Specifically, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under Biden appointee Martha Williams on May 4, 2021 announced “a proposal for new or expanded hunting and sport fishing opportunities for game species across 2.1 million acres at 90 national wildlife refuges and on the lands of one national fish hatchery.”
“Increasing access to public lands and waters is a central component of the [Joe] Biden-[Kamala] Harris administration’s approach to conservation,” the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service media release said.
939 more chances to kill a deer, duck, dove, or fish
“This proposed rule would open or expand 939 opportunities for hunting or sport fishing (an opportunity is one species on one field station),” the media release continued.
“The expansion proposed in this rule is the largest in recent history,” the media release said, “including last year’s proposed rule which itself was larger than the previous five rules combined.”
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service now “proposes to bring the number of units in the Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System where the public may hunt to 434,” or 76% of the 567 total refuges, “and the number where fishing will be permitted to 378,” the media release explained.
“The rule also proposes to formally bring the total number of National Fish Hatchery System units open to hunting or sport fishing to 22,” the media release added.
“Déjà vu all over again”
If the expansion of hunting and fishing opportunities under President Joe Biden sounds like “déjà vu all over again,” as Yogi Berra allegedly put it after the 1958 debut of the Yellowstone National Park cartoon character Yogi Bear, it should.
Former U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service chief Aurelia Skipwith, appointed by former U.S. president Donald Trump, on August 18, 2020––the very the day that Biden was nominated to run against Trump––announced that hunting seasons would be opened or expanded on 2.3 million acres scattered among 147 National Wildlife Refuges.
This expanded an April 2020 proposal by then U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, also a Trump appointee, to expanded hunting and fishing opportunities on 2.3 million acres of federal land within 97 national wildlife refuges and nine fish hatcheries.
The Trump administration had already proposed to open more National Wildlife Refuges to hunting and fishing than the Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton presidential administrations combined.
Note the numbers
Said the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in a media release after the Bernhardt proposal, “A total of 430 sites in the National Wildlife Refuge System will be open to hunting and 360 will be open to fishing following the move, with 21 national fish hatcheries also open for hunting and sport fishing.”
Note that the total acreage involved in the Biden administration and two Trump administration proposals was almost the same, and that while the total number of National Wildlife Refuges to be opened to hunters varied, the 434 refuges to be opened to hunting under the Biden administration is actually four more than would have been opened to hunting if the Bernhardt proposal had been finalized under Skipwith before Trump left office.
Hunting at the end of the Barack Obama presidency was allowed on 337 National Wildlife Refuges, while 276 wildlife refuges allowed fishing.
Politically popular giveaway
One might theorize that the Biden administration is renewing and slightly expanding the Trump administration proposal to increase hunting and fishing access to National Wildlife Refuges simply because it was a politically popular giveaway to hunters and fishers in so-called “swing states.”
These states include Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all but one of which [Florida] tipped from backing Trump to backing Biden in the 2020 presidential election.
Catering to hunters would be consistent with Democratic political strategy in every presidential election since 1952, when avid hunter Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, defeated Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson was perceived, and portrayed by Republicans, as anti-hunting, because as governor of Illinois he had in 1949 vetoed a bill passed by both houses of the state legislature which would have allowed hunters to shoot cats.
Angling for political cover
But the Biden administration may also be angling for political cover with hunters while pursuing a variety of proposals to curtail gun violence by reducing access to firearms, and in “swing states” with major energy extraction and forest products industries while reversing Trump administration positions that would have gutted the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the oldest and perhaps the most broadly applicable U.S. wildlife conservation law, and––separately––would have all but ended habitat protection over a third of the range of the critically endangered northern spotted owl.
The Biden administration in February 2021 delayed enforcement of a “Final Environmental Impact Statement” published on November 27, 2020 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under Skipwith, taking effect on January 7, 2021, which amended the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act enforcement rules to allow businesses, in the mineral extraction industries in particular, to kill many more birds with much less accountability than the estimated annual tolls from human hunters, collisions with windows, roadkills, and feral cats combined.
Recent Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture reports estimate that U.S. industrial operations kill from 450 million to 1.1 billion wild birds annually, from a national wild bird population of about seven billion.
1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes bird-killing industries pay––at least a little bit
The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act regulates the ‘taking’ of migratory birds. This explicitly includes any form of pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing, collecting, or attempting to do any of these things to about 800 migratory bird species.
The law implements a 1916 conservation treaty with Canada and similar agreements signed with Mexico in 1936, Japan in 1972, and Russia in 1976.
Almost from inception the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act has also been used to protect nesting habitat and to prohibit industrial actions which wantonly and predictably jeopardize birds.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act was invoked to oblige ExxonMobil to pay $125 million in criminal penalties after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, a mere fraction of the estimated $7 billion cost of the multi-decade clean-up effort. The spill on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound killed 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 900 bald eagles, 1,000 harlequin ducks, and about 250,000 seabirds of other species within a matter of days.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act also cost BP [formerly British Petroleum] fines of $100 million following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig explosion, fire, and spill into the Gulf of Mexico. The Deepwater Horizon disaster killed an estimated 100,000 sea birds.
The clean-up cost BP about $4 billion, plus about as much more in other fines and penalties.
Trump appointees moved to protect oil industry
In December 2017 however, Interior Department principal deputy solicitor Daniel Jorjani, a Trump appointee who formerly represented oil companies, issued a legal opinion that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act “applies only to direct and affirmative purposeful actions that reduce migratory birds, their eggs, or their nests, by killing or capturing, to human control.”
Elaborated U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service principal deputy director Margaret Everson, to U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), “If an oil or hazardous chemical release occurs and is not done with the intent of taking migratory birds, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act does not apply,” no matter how much harm to migratory birds may follow.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the Biden administration on May 6, 2021 formally proposed to reinstate enforcement of the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act as it was enforced previous to January 7, 2021.
Spotted owls to get habitat back
Simultaneous with trying to undo 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act enforcement, former U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service chief Skipwith moved to erase 3.4 million acres of designated critical habitat for the northern spotted owl in California, Oregon, and Washington.
The logging industry has vehemently opposed the critical habitat designation ever since it was first proposed, soon after the northern spotted owl won Endangered Species Act protection in 1990.
Altogether the critical habitat designation, established by court order in 2012, covers 9.5 million acres. Add to that the 8.6 million acres designated as critical habitat for the also endangered Mexican spotted owl and it is easy to see why spotted owls are unpopular with loggers.
But “Even after its listing, northern spotted owl populations have declined by 70%, and the rate of decline has increased,” noted Susan Jane Brown of the Western Environmental Law Center and Tom Wheeler of the Environmental Protection Information Center in a May 6, 2021 media release.
Blaming barred owls & bison
Trying to reopen spotted owl habitat to logging, without acknowledging the influence of climate change on old growth forest in particular and spotted owl habitat in specific, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service during both the Trump administration and the preceding Barack Obama administration sought to shift the blame for spotted owl losses from habitat issues to the presence of “non-native species.”
In northern spotted owl habitat, barred owls––which are in truth a native North American species, protected by the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act––have been blamed and shot since 2009.
(See Barred owls on the hit list.)
In Mexican spotted owl habitat, the Grand Canyon bison herd has been rather improbably blamed, and is to be culled. Also a native North American species, the Grand Canyon bison were long considered “non-native” to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, but since 2016 have been recognized as native.
Biden administration paused implementation of Trump-era rule that might have caused extinction
Concerning northern spotted owls, “The Biden administration has paused implementation of the Trump-era critical habitat rule until December, signaling its intent to formally reverse or revise the rule,” Brown and Wheeler wrote. “Meanwhile, the timber industry has already filed suit against the delayed implementation and Congressional Republicans are lining up behind the timber industry, urging the immediate implementation of the Trump rule.”
Preparing for the forthcoming court fight, the Western Environmental Law Center recently learned through document disclosure that, “On the same day” that Skipwith “announced the elimination of 3.4 million acres of critical habitat for the northern spotted owl, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s top owl expert formally objected to the decision. The January 15, 2021 memorandum, written by Oregon State Office Supervisor for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Dr. Paul Henson, found that ‘It is reasonable to conclude that [the reduction in critical habitat] will result in the extinction of the [northern spotted owl].’”
“On December 9, 2020,” Brown and Wheeler added, “Henson likewise warned, ‘Most scientists (myself included) would conclude that such an outcome will, therefore, result in the eventual extinction of the listed subspecies.’”
Henson did not respond earlier to the delisting of critical habitat, Brown and Wheeler said, because the Skipwith decision “was reportedly not provided to Dr. Henson until the day before the formal rule making, making a more timely objection impossible.”